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Questioning “diversity”

Today, thanks to a phone call I received from a high school friend I had not been in touch with for years, I learned that it was United Nations Day.  Did you know?  I didn’t…me, the lover of all things global and cultural.  She was calling to let me know she was going to write about The World in My Backyard on her blog Wonderlust Adventures in honor of United Nations Day.

I was planning on posting tomorrow, but today, I want to honor United Nations Day, too by sharing a conversation I had with my husband and son this morning regarding a school potluck we attended last night.

I have two elementary age boys.  They attend two different public schools…I won’t even begin to explain why, I just share this because I am pulling my thoughts from two different schools’ experiences.  Both schools are very diverse–racially, ethnically (30+ languages represented at each), religiously and socio-economically.  DIVERSITY–a buzz word of 21st century schools and parents.  Seattle residents take pride in the city’s diversity.  But last night, I was left thinking there is a vast difference between being a part of a diverse population and really living in a diverse community.

My son’s school hosted a potluck to provide families an opportunity to meet and observe reading strategies we can do with our children at home.  It is a new school for my son, so I do not know many of the parents.  Immediately upon entering the cafeteria, my son introduced me to his classmate.  Next, I grabbed some food and surveyed the parent-filled room.  The classmate and his mother were sitting alone, so I chose to sit with them.  I quickly learned his mother, Lisa, was from China, but had been living in Seattle since she was 18 (over half her lifetime and much longer than myself).

We had a great conversation, realizing we shared some similarities—she is a working mother of three children all at different schools—preschool, the school we were at and a middle school 15 minutes further north (I thought two was hard enough).  The school we were in is K-8th grade so I asked why her 7th grader was at a different school.  Lisa’s oldest son was deaf and our K-8 did not have support for deaf students.  “Wow, she has her plate full”, I thought.  “How does she manage it all ?”  She acknowledged how difficult the days can be.  They leave the house at 7am to drive to all three schools before she goes to work.  I asked her if she knows sign language and she laughed.   “It is my 4th language, so I don’t remember it very well…” she speaks Mandarin, Cantonese, English and sign language.  Like most moms, she expressed exasperation when her son wouldn’t eat his food or did not listen to her.  At times, our conversation stalled.  It always takes a little bit of work to find talking points when you are talking with someone new, but the quiet moments were not uncomfortable and gave us opportunities to talk with our kids.  In the quiet moments, I looked around.  Throughout our conversation, no one joined our table.  The other tables were filled with groups of homogeneous people who seemed to know each other with a few outlying tables with a solitary family or two, like our table.  I wondered how long it would take until I would gravitate to the people I knew, instead of being the new person and talking to other people who sat alone.  Instead of feeling left out, I was thankful to have had an opportunity to meet Lisa, learn a little about her and a new spot in Seattle we will be hitting on Sunday–North West Tofu, her family’s restaurant and tofu factory..we LOVE tofu we cannot wait to try their food.

As we were finishing up, a few women arrived and started talking with Lisa in Mandarin.    They were now homogenous cluster.  The “vibe” of their conversation was so much different than ours had been, it was easy and familiar.

This morning, I mentioned to my husband that each potluck I have attended at these “diverse” schools result in a similar picture of people clustering with the people they know.  Often, the clusters are racially or culturally based.  I see people I know, talking to people they already know.   “Isn’t a potluck a social mixer where we should be meeting new people?” I said in frustration.  He replied, “It is human nature.  It is just the way it is.  You cannot force people to meet new people.”  Then, why do we even talk about diversity?  Why do people take pride in being a “diverse community” or that their kids attend “diverse schools”?

Every time a social gathering has happened at my sons’ schools, the kids are running around, playing non-stop.  They are experiencing diversity.  If adults are not modeling “experiencing” diversity but instead model segregation in a diverse population, ultimately won’t our children’s experiences stop and be replaced by their family’s social behavior.  Last night, when I saw the spark of conversation ignite when Lisa spoke in her native language, I saw it was not just the English speakers or the white parents creating the segregation (which I unfairly assumed).  It is easier for everyone to stay with people they know.  It is not to be judged or shamed.  Most people do it.  But to create the world we are hoping for when we promote diversity, we must be mindful to counter this behavior.

Our social tendency is to gravitate to the familiar, to stay within our comfort zone.  We can come up with a variety of excuses to keep ourselves from making an effort to connect—“I am super tired and don’t have the energy necessary to meet anyone tonight.”  “I really must talk to friend X about something important right now.”  Etc…And sometimes we just keep our heads down to avoid opening up to new conversations.  I am not immune from any of those feelings and thoughts.  All the while, our kids are running around together…we can learn from their naïve, youthful energy and perspectives.

I don’t think my husband’s quick response of human nature is correct.  Watching our children play, it is human nature to be open to everyone, regardless of race, religion, socio-economics, etc.  We are not born with fear or questioning of others.  It is a learned behavior.  A behavior passed down from parents.  If we are going to promote diversity and pat ourselves on the back for providing diversity to our children, we must push beyond our comfort zone and truly experience diversity.  We need to return to the uninhibited, openness of our youth.  Connect and play with people who seem so different than ourselves.  Because most times, we will discover we are not so different after all and can learn from each others lived experiences.  That is when magic will happen and we no longer need to talk about diversity because we will be living it!!

Happy United Nations Day!

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1 Comment

  1. This is thoughtful and thought provoking. Thank you!

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